The First Act of Congress: Administering Oaths for a New Kind of Government

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1789, the first Congress faced a daunting task. Although the newly adopted Constitution provided a blueprint for the new government, Congress needed to enact legislation that would ensure a smooth transition from the Articles of Confederation and lay the groundwork for a strong national government, while simultaneously protecting individual liberties.

Between March (actually April, when they reached a quorum) and late September, the first session of the first Congress met in New York City. The Congress proposed and debated numerous bills, and ultimately passed twenty-six acts. One established the judicial courts; three dealt with compensating members of Congress, judges, the president, and vice president; and two acts imposed duties on imported merchandise. In addition, three acts established the Departments of War, Foreign Affairs, and the Treasury; and one well-known act, the Northwest Territory Act, followed the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and established the region that includes present-day Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. But the very first act, signed into law by President George Washington on June 1, 1789, was "An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths."

The Constitution contained an oath of office only for the president. Article II, Section 1, directed the president to take the following oath before entering office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." This is the same oath that every president since George Washington has taken.

Article VI, however, specified only that other officials be "bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution," but it did not offer the exact wording. Congress filled this void through its first act, by mandating that all members of Congress, all federal officials, all members of state legislatures, judiciaries, and executives take a simple fourteen-word oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States." The act also required officials to take the oath within three days of the act's passage, or upon appointment to the new position.

This act was in effect for nearly seventy-five years, but during the Civil War Congress passed legislation that changed the oath. The change required civil servants and military officers to swear not only future loyalty, but also to affirm that they had never previously engaged in disloyal or criminal conduct. This was prompted by fears about the damage Confederate sympathizers could inflict upon the Union. In 1884, this additional affirmation was repealed.

Today, prior to assuming their official duties, government officials take the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

Teaching Activities

1. Brainstorming Activity

Remind students that Congress met for the first time under the Constitution in the spring of 1789. Ask them to brainstorm a list of acts they think Congress might have considered in its first session. Posing a question such as "What issues might a brand new government face?" may be helpful. Record student answers on the board.

2. Document Analysis

Provide students with a copy of the featured document and its transcription. Ask a volunteer to read it aloud while the others follow along. Lead a class discussion with the following questions:

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